Belfast Telegraph

Claudy bombing: Terrorist priest protected in 1972 probe

A police investigation into a Catholic priest suspected over the 1972 Claudy bombing was stopped after senior officers conspired with the government and Church to protect him, a Police Ombudsman report revealed today.

Father James Chesney was transferred to a parish in Co Donegal, outside the Northern Ireland jurisdiction, following secret talks between the then secretary of state William Whitelaw and the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway.

The two men discussed the scandal after being approached by a senior Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer as the police were apparently reluctant to arrest the cleric for fear of inflaming the security situation.

Nine people, including a young girl, were killed and 30 injured when three car bombs exploded in the quiet Co Londonderry village in July 1972.

No-one has ever been charged with the murders, which happened on the same day as British troops stormed republican no-go areas Londonderry in Operation Motorman.

That happened just six months after the Bloody Sunday killings of 13 civilians by soldiers in Londonderry when Martin McGuinness, now the Deputy First Minister at the Northern Ireland Executive, was the IRA's second-in-command in the city.

Father Chesney, who died in 1980 aged 46, has long been suspected as the IRA man who masterminded the atrocity but today's damning report by Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson also revealed the part played by the RUC in the high-level cover-up.

Mr Hutchinson's officers examined diaries belonging to Cardinal Conway which confirmed contact with him and Mr Whitelaw over the rogue cleric and correspondence between the RUC, which was led by chief constable Sir Graham Shillington, and the government.

Mr Whitelaw, a minister in Edward Heath's Conservative government, died in 1999, Cardinal Conway in 1977 and Sir Graham in 2001.

Findings in Mr Hutchinson's report disclosed:

  • Detectives believed Father Chesney was the IRA's director of operations in south Derry and was a prime suspect in the Claudy attack and other terrorist incidents.
  • A detective's request to arrest the cleric was refused by an assistant chief constable of RUC Special Branch who instead said "matters are in hand".
  • The same senior officer wrote to the government about what action could be taken to "render harmless a dangerous priest" and asked if the matter could be raised with the Church's hierarchy.
  • In December 1972 Mr Whitelaw met Cardinal Conway to discuss the issue. According to a Northern Ireland Office official, "the cardinal said he knew the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done". The church leader mentioned "the possibility of transferring him to Donegal..."
  • In response to this memo, RUC chief constable Sir Graham noted: "I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary."
  • An entry in Cardinal Conway's diary on December 5 1972 confirmed a meeting with Mr Whitelaw took place and stated there had been "a rather disturbing tete-a-tete at the end about C".
  • In another diary entry two months later, the cardinal noted that he had discussed the issue with Father Chesney's superior and that "the superior however had given him orders to stay where he was on sick leave until further notice".

Click here to download full report (pdf 2.45mb)

Father Chesney was transferred across the Irish border in Co Donegal in late 1973 and never ministered again in Northern Ireland. According to Church records, he denied involvement in the attacks when questioned by his superiors.

But he died seven years later having never faced police interview.

Mr Hutchinson said there was no evidence that the police had information that could have prevented the attack.

However, he said the RUC's decision to ask the government to resolve the matter with the Church, and then accept the outcome, was wrong.

"The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing," he said.

"The police officers who were working on the investigation were also undermined."

Mr Hutchinson said the decisions made must be considered in the context of the time.

"I accept that 1972 was one of the worst years of the Troubles and that the arrest of a priest might well have aggravated the security situation," he said.

"Equally, I consider that the police failure to investigate someone they suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism could, in itself, have had serious consequences."

As regards the role of Church and State officials, Mr Hutchinson said his investigation found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of any government minister or official or any official of the Catholic Church.

But he added: "The morality or 'rightness' of the decision taken by the government and the Catholic Church in agreeing to the RUC request is another matter entirely and requires further public debate.

"Placing this information in the public domain in a transparent manner enables that debate to take place."

The Ombudsman said he was confident such an episode would never happen again.

"Rigorous procedural laws, checks and balances, media scrutiny and offices such as that of the Police Ombudsman would ensure that similar actions could not occur without proper accountability," he said.

FORGOTTEN ATROCITY OF THE TROUBLES

The triple car bomb attack that ripped the heart out of the quiet rural village of Claudy has been described as one of the forgotten atrocities of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Launched on the same day 12,000 British troops entered republican no-go areas in Belfast and Londonderry in a bid to regain control, the outrage was not even the lead item on some news bulletins.

As the military operation dubbed Motorman continued 11 miles away in Londonderry's bogside, the first device exploded without warning outside McElhinney's shop and bar on Main Street.

Police believe the bombers attempted to telephone a warning from nearby Dungiven but the lines were down as the result of past bomb damage to the phone exchange.

They then told Dungiven shop owners that three bombs were planted in the village, but the proprietors were also unable to contact the authorities due to the line problems.

One shop owner rushed to Dungiven police station with the warning but it was too late.

Minutes after the first bomb went off, killing three and fatally wounding three others, police officers discovered a second device in a van beside the post office.

They frantically evacuated people towards the Beaufort Hotel, but little did they know that a third bomb had been concealed in another van outside the hotel.

Soon after the second bomb detonated, the third exploded, killing three more.

The IRA denied responsibility for the murders, with the leadership claiming an internal "court of inquiry" indicated that its local unit did not carry it out.

But this account was long doubted, with many believing the republicans were unwilling to own up to an operation they viewed as botched due to the phone warnings not going through.

Rumours soon circulated that young curate Father Jim Chesney was involved. A flamboyant character, he was already suspected of being an IRA sympathiser.

Moved to another parish in Donegal, he died of cancer in 1980 having never been questioned by police.

At the Claudy bomb inquest, a coroner described the outrage as "sheer, unadulterated, cold, calculated, fiendish murder". Later poet James Simmons described the moment of the attack in his work, Claudy.

"An explosion too loud for your eardrums to bear, and young children squealing like pigs in the square, and all faces chalk-white and streaked with bright red, and the glass and the dust and the terrible dead."

BOMBED GOING ABOUT THEIR BUSINESS

Nine people were killed in the Claudy bombings. Young and old, five Roman Catholics and four Protestants - the attack did not discriminate.

  • Patrick Connolly, 15, Catholic. The teenager died in hospital over a week after being caught up in the first blast outside McElhinney's pub and shop.
  • Kathryn Eakin, 9, Protestant. The young girl was cleaning the windows of the family's grocery shop on Main Street when the first bomb exploded.
  • Arthur Hone, 38, Catholic. The married father of two died a fortnight after the bombing. Two of his uncles - both priests - conducted a requiem mass at the insurance salesman's funeral.
  • Joseph McCloskey, 39, Catholic. The factory worker died instantly when the first bomb detonated.
  • Elizabeth McElhinney, 59, Catholic. The owner of the pub and shop where the first car bomb went off was serving petrol from the shop's pump when she was killed.
  • James McClelland, 65, Protestant. The street cleaner was killed by the third and final bomb contained in a mini van.
  • Rose McLaughlin, 52, Catholic. The mother of eight and cafe owner died in hospital four days after the outrage.
  • David Miller, 60, Protestant. The street cleaner was killed by the third blast.
  • William Temple, 16, Protestant. The milkman's helper from nearby Donemana in Co Tyrone was on his round in the village when the bombs went off.

Click here to download full report (pdf 2.45mb)

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